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A 21st-century NGO

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2012 - Winter


A handful of Yale medical students opened a clinic and hospital in a remote corner of Nepal. From 8,000 miles away, via the Internet, they provide support. Here’s how they do it.

The last time Ryan Schwarz, M.D. ’11, M.B.A. ’11, was in Kathmandu, he told a Nepali man that he was traveling to Achham, a district in the western part of the country, on behalf of Nyaya, a nonprofit health organization.

“The man looked at me and smiled, and said, ‘Assam is a beautiful part of India’,” Schwarz said. “I told him, ‘No, Achham. Here in Nepal.’ He just looked and shrugged. He had never heard of it.”

Achham, a region of 250,000 people, is South Asia’s land that time forgot, or more likely ignored. The journey from Kathmandu, about 260 miles away, can take up to three days—more if monsoons have washed out the few dirt roads on which rickety buses travel. The region is slowly recovering from a decade-long civil war and suffering the effects of HIV, malnutrition, and lack of maternal care. Five years ago, the region didn’t have a single allopathic doctor.

Now Achham is home to Nyaya Health, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) started by three Yale students in 2005. Nyaya runs the Bayalpata Hospital, a fully operational free hospital that is staffed by Nepali health care workers and treats more than 150 patients per day. A dedicated—and e-mail addicted—group of Yale medical students and graduates monitors the operations of the hospital from their smartphones in New Haven, Boston, and San Francisco. They do not see themselves as “running” the hospital and are careful on their yearly visits not to interfere with its day-to-day operations. Instead, the Yale students and graduates handle donations, publicity, and finances so that their vision of a free health care system in rural Nepal can be realized by the people to whom it matters the most: the Nepalese.

Nyaya, which means “justice” in Nepali, is not the first NGO started by Yale medical students, but it may be the first NGO undertaken by members of the millennial generation—people born between 1980 and 1995. Nyaya’s founders use the Internet; involve the local government to ensure that their efforts will be protected; and don’t worry about the lack of an office, a proper mailbox, or even roads.

“A different generation, a generation ahead of us, may not have the same understanding of our work that we do,” said Schwarz. “But we believe that free health care is every citizen’s right, and we think of citizenship as global, not national.”

It’s that philosophical underpinning and the explosion of the millennials’ interest in global health—not to mention the Internet—that allows Nyaya to create a radical health care system 8,000 miles away from New Haven and, in the process, show how to build a 21st-century NGO.

An encounter in New Haven

Jason Andrews, M.D. ’07, visited Achham in 2006 between his fourth and fifth years of medical school. His wife, a Nepalese photographer, was working on a documentary there about women and children with HIV—an infection carried back to Achham by men who had traveled to India for work. Noting the region’s abandoned hospital, Andrews saw an opportunity in a country that had fascinated him since his undergraduate days at Yale when he met a Nepali chef at the Royal India Restaurant in New Haven. “I came back and e-mailed two of my friends about the abandoned hospital,” Andrews said.

Achham was supposed to be the site of a district hospital 25 years ago, but at the last minute, in response to demands from a community with more political influence, the government moved the hospital to a location eight hours away. “There was a devastating history to that hospital, which we later confirmed with several people,” said Andrews. Troops arrived after the change was announced and six protesters were killed.

With no hospital in the region, doctors and nurses moved elsewhere and Achham remained a health care desert. In Nepal, health care is based on a user-fee system largely out of reach to the rural poor. Because the region is so isolated and travel so difficult, the lack of accountability in government-run clinics has resulted in a shadow medical economy. Rural doctors take supplies and drugs from government clinics and open up private practices in small villages, selling expired antibiotics at exorbitant prices.

Andrews, along with Duncan Smith-Rohrberg Maru, M.D. ’09, Ph.D. ’09, and Sanjay Basu, M.D. ’09, Ph.D. ’09, decided that they could change that landscape. They knew, however, that implementing their vision of a free first-world health care operation in the abandoned hospital was an ambitious undertaking in a region where most citizens don’t have electricity. So they started with the Sanfe Bagar Medical Clinic.

“The clinic was in an old grain shed,” said Smith-Rohrberg Maru, a resident in medicine and pediatrics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “It was a classic NGO beginning, but we knew it was not possible to start off with a full hospital.”

After organizing a pharmacy, painting the walls, and repopulating the clinic with Nepalese doctors, Nyaya turned over the clinical operation to the Nepali government in May 2009. That last step is a bit antithetical to traditional NGO models, but it’s vital to the Nyaya vision.

“It was never meant to be a drop-in or expat-staffed model,” said Andrews, an infectious diseases fellow at Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals. “It’s not Doctors Without Borders. The idea has always been to create a sustainable model of health care for that community.”

Nyaya staffed both the clinic and the hospital with local Nepalese—everyone from the hospital’s accountant to the medical director, chef to ambulance driver is a local. Though Yale students are encouraged to visit Achham, their role is always to help the hospital meet its needs—not get in the way.

With the free clinic in the hands of the Nepali government, Nyaya turned its sights back to Bayalpata Hospital, which opened on June 21, 2009. With a staff of more than 30 Nepalese health care providers, the hospital tends to more than 3,000 patients per month.

Working with the local government

“How people live in Achham is fairly typical for rural and poor Nepal, but the isolation, the lack of transportation, and the lack of services set it apart,” said Bibhav Acharya, M.D. ’11, a resident in psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. Acharya, the executive vice president of Nyaya, is Nepalese but hails from the central part of the country.

Achham looks like a lot of other impoverished places around the world. Multiple generations of families live in mud homes. Agriculture is the only way to make a living, but a feudal social system means a handful of families control the debts, crops, and fates of most people in the region. Most of the population is illiterate and few have ever had access to regular health care.

When Andrews, Smith-Rohrberg Maru, and Basu approached Kaveh Khoshnood, M.P.H. ’89, Ph.D. ’95, assistant professor of epidemiology (microbial diseases), to be faculty advisor for their project in 2006, Khoshnood asked the same skeptical questions he asks of any students thinking of starting an NGO.

“Is there a need for this? Should somebody else be doing this? Can you really direct something there from here?” asked Khoshnood. “But they had considered [those things]. There was simply no other health care provider.”

Khoshnood was surprised by how thoroughly the founding members of Nyaya had thought out their plans. Khoshnood said students often spew a lot of rhetoric about “long-term capacity building”—a buzz phrase that means whatever an NGO creates will endure long after its creators have moved on. Nyaya has figured out one counterintuitive way to make sure their NGO is sustainable: involve the government. “So many NGOs get frustrated by corruption and bureaucracy in governments, so they just bypass them,” said Khoshnood. “But then, when the NGO leaves there’s a vacuum of services.”

Nyaya has secured government approval for every action taken in Achham, not always an easy feat given the region’s isolation and political turmoil. Between 1996 and 2006 Maoist insurgents were fighting the government in a civil war that ended when the ruling monarchy tumbled. The new democratic government, however, hasn’t been exactly eager to pour money into the region. Furthermore, foreign trekkers and climbers, the bulk of the country’s tourist trade, ignore the lowland west in favor of the high peaks of eastern Nepal, home to Mount Everest. “Most money doesn’t travel west,” said Schwarz. “Tourism money stays in the east.”

By involving the government in their plans, Nyaya has ensured that some government money will be planted in the hospital and that Nyaya will be accountable to the community it serves. The government funded the clinic’s first health officer, and Nyaya takes pride in the government’s regular—if small—allowances for daily operations. Most of the more than $500,000 Nyaya has raised since its founding—about 74 percent—comes from individual donors, with foundations providing another 19 percent.

“If we work with the government we can ensure that if we run out of money, they can step in,” said Acharya. “If we collaborate, we help make the government responsible.”

Getting the proper permits, proposals, and agreements was a headache for the founding members of Nyaya, but cooperating with a government is not nearly as difficult as confronting a society that places a greater value on health care for men than for women.

“In this part of Nepal, there is a cultural stigma against blood,” said Acharya. “It’s thought of as unclean.” That means that during menstruation and for 11 days after childbirth, women are isolated and made to sleep in cow sheds. And most families don’t believe women’s health is “worth” the expense.

While conducting a survey to gauge community health needs, Acharya encountered a very sick woman outside a small private medical practice near Achham. “She and her son came out of a clinic. I asked her what her symptoms were, she said she had had a fever for several weeks,” said Acharya. “I asked her what kind of treatment she got. She said, ‘What do you mean?’ ”

The woman wasn’t there for herself—her son was showing signs of illness. Her husband, she said, had told her not to tell the doctor she was ill, too—they could afford medical care only for the male child.

Nyaya found a sustainable and double-pronged way to overcome the lack of health care for women: Nyaya health care is free, so there’s no argument within families about who may get care. And the female patients trust their peers, the community health care workers (CHW), who are nearly all women. A CHW can have a nurse- or physician assistant-like role in the hospital, or act as a community educator. In most hospitals in Nepal CHWs are unpaid, but those who work for Nyaya make a decent living. Nyaya also supplements their government medical training with specialized programs. So far, the model has worked—65 percent of all patients seen at the hospital are women.

Product of a new generation

Nyaya’s directors and founders are young, not unusual for an NGO, but remarkable for a successful one. In many ways, Nyaya is the product of a generational shift reflected in its founders, who value flexibility, transparency, and social connectedness, and see health as a global right.

Members of their generation have come to expect several job or career changes over a lifetime, a handful of homes, and maybe even more than one marriage. They also live their lives online, on social networks, and on mobile phones. With change and flexibility a cornerstone of their lives, Nyaya’s founders were willing to allow the hospital to define itself in a way that serves the community. “We started out with the HIV focus,” said Acharya. “But then we saw children dying of diarrhea and malnutrition, so we had to shift our focus. Our question is always, ‘What’s killing people?’ ”

Along with flexibility came transparency, which has set the organization apart in a sea of 32,000 NGOs in Nepal. “With so many NGOs, you have no idea of what actual work they do,” said Khoshnood. “With Nyaya you can go to the blog daily and see that they had an immunization campaign, or that they painted a building on the hospital campus.”

Nyaya is an open-source organization—every financial statement and every up-and-down confronting the organization can be found online, either on its blog or its wiki page. “We don’t keep things hidden as far as how we operate,” said Andrews. “Any volunteer can read our financial model, our clinical model—it’s all totally open. Being open has let more people come in.” Khoshnood said donors are attracted to this transparency and the instant gratification of seeing their efforts on the Web.

The Web doesn’t just make this transparency possible—it allows Nyaya to function. Such normal hospital functions as reviewing charts or offering advice on a mysterious case take place via the Internet or over a satellite phone service that is one of the hospital’s highest monthly bills. Andrews oversees weekly mortality and morbidity meetings online, and because of the organizational structure of Nyaya (new presidents assume their roles every 18 months or so), constant e-mail is essential.

Familiarity with the Internet is only one element of a generational shift. Where do the motivation and inspiration to start such a project come from? That answer lies in an even larger question: why is the millennial generation so taken with global health?

As a professor of epidemiology, Khoshnood has seen an explosion in global health course offerings, student interest, and volunteerism in the last 10 years. He said that the HIV epidemic, the resulting activism, 9/11, and a realization that events around the world can have repercussions for the United States led this generation toward thinking of global health as both a vocation and a career. The Internet and mogul foundations like the Gates Foundation made having a career in such a field seem possible.

Schwarz came to Nyaya with a deeply held conviction, shared with other members, that health care is a fundamental human right. Everything flows from this uncomplicated belief.

Though Nyaya has been successful, the members say they’re just starting to feel proud of their health care model, and it’s nowhere near perfect. First, they need a surgical ward—too many women who make it to the hospital’s maternity ward staffed with six full-time midwives die when a cesarean is needed. Second, since the organization is flexible, it’s always looking for holes in its services. In that way, the hospital will never be perfect or complete.

Only when the members slow down and look up from the constant barrage of e-mails do they allow themselves to be a bit impressed with their work. They’ve turned an abandoned hospital in a small corner of the world into a house of healing and justice. YM

To read more about Nyaya’s work and find out how you can help, please visit